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Understanding & Healing Emotional Neglect

I have been thinking lately about my specialties and how they connect. Though there are others, I believe one connecting factor is history of emotional neglect.

What is emotional neglect?

Emotional neglect involves the repeated emotional absence of others, sometimes routinely, sometimes when their emotional presence was needed more than usual.

The emotional presence of trusted others helps to regulate feelings, feel secure, and solidify an identity. Early life is when a lot of that basic emotional learning takes place. Whatever is learned there (including bits of puzzling emptiness) is taken to be ‘just the way it is / I am / others are’.

Why didn’t I know about this?

Emotional neglect is harder to see and understand than outright abuse or physical neglect. That’s because it is an absence of an emotional ‘growth & survival’ factor.

How is emotional neglect identified?

By reasoning and reconstructing in a responsible way, using observations, history-taking, pattern analysis, and knowledge of psychological processes. Let’s make it clearer.

In therapy, people with this history often become more aware of some of the following (this list is revealing and is found in Webb, 2014):

  • Emptiness feelings
  • Specific avoidance of dependence (not just healthy independence)
  • Inaccurate self-perception (to explain–not truly knowing one’s abilities, hard to state one’s preferences, choosing the wrong career, feeling like a misfit, not sure of what family / friends think of one)
  • Little compassion for self, much compassion for others
  • Guilt and shame (a general sense of something wrong with the self, with related behavior and feelings)
  • Anger and blame directed at oneself (including self-destructiveness)
  • Feeling a flaw in oneself that, if known, would destroy a relationship or lead to rejection
  • Trouble nurturing others and self
  • Trouble with self-discipline, underachieving, finishing boring or ordinary tasks, disorganization
  • Low awareness and / or understanding of emotions (irritability, not sure whether one is having a feeling, trouble understanding behavior, anger is explosive when it does occur, feeling truly different from others)

Often, such aspects are signs that something important was missing for this person. Something that is hard to put into words because the person was too young, distracted, misguided, or strained. Even into adult life, sometimes emotional neglect is hard to define because it’s based on absences.

Absences in times of need

In childhood, or at high-strain times as adults, people want to perceive security and certainty. People are often quite scared by true unknowns but are not easily conscious of it.

The problem is that the certainty and security we often want is excessive. (Some have a more upside-down way to feel secure: being used to a constantly chaotic life.) Regardless, trying for an excessive or impossible degree of certainty leads to a different kind of pain–a symptom or problem.

One way to deal with an upsetting absence is to unconsciously experience the absence as a presence or certainty…of something bad.

That reimagined certainty then stands in for ‘unknowns’. We really dislike not knowing important-feeling things.

Why does it take a while to heal—especially from emotional neglect?

Without some guidance, the search for perceived control can go on and on–seeking the perfect, one thing that will solve a sense of lack, the feeling of uncertainty. It takes time to let the search for ‘the one thing’ go. It takes guidance and practice to accept that a good-but-imperfect network of people, passions, and interests will eventually feel secure and full enough.

If you’ve been feeling safe with your therapist and gradually

  • looking deeper
  • making important connections about past, present, future, and relationships
  • consolidating insights and really feeling their meaning now
  • seeing improvements that are getting more consistent over time

…your therapy is on the right track. It is much better to fully understand what was missing for you somewhat later, than to not get there at all.

The purpose is not to dwell forever in the past; the past is used to keep seeing important points and formulate what could help you find and have needed experiences, now and in the future.

How do you work with emotional neglect?

First, part of my job is to stay open to many possibilities about the root causes of what’s gone wrong for you. For one, I remember that there could have been unmet, longed-for emotional needs, in addition to any obvious traumatic events from your past. Also, even obvious traumatic events are experienced within a social environment. Emotional neglect from that environment, intentional or not, tends to worsen any reactions to direct traumas.

If you have a secure, reliable, understanding, and knowledgeable therapist–and you are ready–the therapy work forms a bridge. The bridge uses the therapist’s presence and therapy relationship to gradually improve important areas. Those might include self-motivated seeking, noticing, and development of the supportive relations you do or could have. That also leads to positive experiences that can fill these felt empty spots.

A side note about blame:

We should be cautious about accusing others of things they may not even realize. Emotional neglect is subtler than abuse and may not be on the radar at all. Also: nearly everyone has been at least a little emotionally neglectful at some point. Often, that happens out of stress, or the person’s own history of emotional neglect.

On the other side of it, if you experienced emotional neglect, it was not your ‘fault’. Remember, emotional neglect is harder to recognize than the other, clearer challenges of life. And it often occurs when you were least able to understand or counteract it.

Summary and invitation

Sometimes the origin of troubles is obvious, such as when clearly observable, terrible things occurred. But another possible origin of problems is that something was missing but not entirely physical.

Emotional neglect is a consistent absence of needed emotional presence, leading to an unmet need to be seen, loved, and accepted, ‘as-is’. (Or an unresolved uncertainty about that.)

Emotional neglect can lead to less healthy, more compromised habits and routines. Those routines can be seen in external behavior, internal thoughts & feelings, and relationship patterns (see above bullet list).

Because of how emotional neglect affects people, I favor accepting-yet-firm therapy approaches in which patients learn to be gentle with themselves while hearing what they need to hear.

What works is patience, kindness, insight, and understanding about what you bring to sessions, your response, and the pace of your natural process. I have dedicated a significant part of my practice to problems often linked to emotional neglect. If this post or my specialties resonate with you, reach out for an initial brief, free call.


Regarding the below important sources and links to the books, I get no financial benefit at all from mentioning them here. Also, this post is only my particular, shortened voice about this issue–for more, see:

Emotional Neglect and the Adult in Therapy (Kathrin Stauffer, PhD)

Running on Empty (Jonice Webb, PhD)

Images: see each’s description; all found free on

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Claremont, CA 91711
(909) 766-2221

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